The Dual Identity of Oscar Wilde

by Jessica Linhart

Oscar Wilde was a famous author, playwright and poet; born in Dublin in 1854 into a noble family, and was the second child of Sir Willie Wilde and Lady Jane Wilde. Wilde was highly educated, having studied Classics at Trinity College, Dublin and the Greats at Magdalen Collage Oxford.  He then went on to travel between London, Paris and America in the 1880s, and married Constance Lloyd in 1884.

Oscar Wilde

Wilde in 1882

His most notable works were The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray.  From having performed The Importance of Being Earnest and read The Picture of Dorian Gray I have a deep love for his works from both the beautiful imagery and complex themes created, and the realm his characters live in, the world of the dandy.  While The Importance of Being Earnest was an instant success, The Picture of Dorian Gray was received poorly and deemed immoral due to its homosexual undertones.  Both texts give a great insight to the world which Wilde lived in. While Dickens focused much of his writing on the working class in Victorian England, for example in Great Expectations, Wilde focused on the lives of high society, and the world of the dandy.

Oscar Wilde was viewed as an archetypal dandy, with a refined sense of beauty and language and intellect. In The Picture of Dorian Gray he wrote ‘it is only shallow people who do not judge on appearances’. Wilde lived his life in luxury and while he was very hard working he liked appearing idle, most photographs of Wilde show him lounging on a luxurious backdrop, so as to portray himself as a dandy. Many of his characters were dandies also, such as Algernon Moncrieff, from The Importance of Being Earnest, who was idle, charismatic and a decorative bachelor. It is The Picture of Dorian Gray which is best known for its dandy protagonist. The protagonist, Dorian Gray, is a man of ‘extraordinary personal beauty’. Gray is written as a character whose obsession with aesthetical beauty controls his life, to the point that he has a self-portrait age so he can retain his young angelic looks. This ultimately leads to his downfall, as he is unable to cope with the repulsive appearance of the portrait. This view on the importance of outer beauty was also shared by Wilde himself who once said ‘You can never be overdressed or overeducated’, beautifully embodying what it was to be a dandy.

Wilde and Lord Albert Douglas in 1894

Wilde and Lord Albert Douglas in 1894

Another theme in Wilde’s works was that of dual identities.  Dorian Gray was seen as both dandy and thug, and Jack Worthing, from The Importance of Being Earnest, who depicts himself as a high moral character but is also a liar. The concept of dual identity in Wilde’s work was also a reflection of his life; in public he adopted the façade of a heterosexual man through his marriage, but in private he had a string of homosexual affairs. His secret identity was made public in 1895, while The Importance of Being Earnest was on at the West End, as his secret life was exposed. The trial of Oscar Wilde resulted in a guilty verdict on the count of Gross Indecency for his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. The judge said for his homosexuality, Wilde must be ‘dead of a sense of shame’ and sentenced him to two years in Holloway prison. This verdict not only tarnished Wilde’s reputation but also that of the dandy, which then became associated with the crime of homosexuality.

Wilde died in 1900 in Paris, bankrupt and without the wide circle of admirers he had at the height of his fame and popularity. Wilde is now celebrated as a great literary genius whose life and work was seen as too controversial for the Victorian era. It was Wilde however who summed his downfall up most cleverly, saying that his critics would ‘always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit’.

 

Ave Imperatrix

Wilde was also anti-imperialist, expressed through his poem ‘Ave Imperatrix’, written in 1881, in reaction to the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The war was part of the scramble for central Asia, with both the British and Russian Empires waging wars in order to capture new colonies.  Wilde’s critical view on imperialism and the British Empire however was not the common view of the British people at the time. Instead the popular view was Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, that of the survival of the fittest within the animal kingdom. This theory was applied to humans to justify Britain’s imperialism in the Victorian era by being applied to her colonies; this became known as Social Darwinism.  The majority of the British population in the nineteenth century saw the invasion and colonisation of non-Christian countries as justified due to the fact that they had not proved to be superior by Darwinian standards, and therefore could be exploited for the benefit of the Empire. ‘Ave Imperatrix’ highlights the brutality and greed of the British Empire, the poem highlights the violence and death which the Empire has caused within India and Afghanistan. The poem ultimately asks the reader to question whether the Britain can still be seen as a civilized when reflecting on the brutality caused with the quest for expansion. Wilde’s poem also questions the notion that the countries which Britain colonised were improved as a result. Ave Imperatrix describes the beauty of the native cultures and their destruction through the arrival of Britain.

 Reading of Ave Imperatrix:

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